The Christian imagination: Theology and the origins of Race, by Willie James Jennings. London: Yale University Press, 2010. Book review by Sara Améstegui Deik


Willie Jennings is an associate professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale Divinity School. Jennings is a Calvin College graduate, he received his M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in religion and ethics from Duke. In 2010, Jennings published “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race” and won the American Academy of Religion Award of Excellence in the Study of Religion in the Constructive-Reflective category and, in 2015, the Grawemeyer Award in Religion, the largest prize for a theological work in North America.

The thesis

Unlike many who believe the concept of race began in the Enlightenment and modernity, Jennings situates racial formation in the late medieval soil at the dawn of western colonialism (289). Furthermore, Jennings argues that racial formation has a theological beginning. The outcome of this foundation is a diseased social imagination that stills operates within Christianity today (6-7). Thus, for Jennings “Western Christian intellectuals still imagine the world from their commanding heights.” (8)

A perennial argument that stands out throughout Jennings’ thesis is the role supersessionist thinking played in configurating white superiority (36). Within a supersessionist logic, European Christians did not see themselves as Gentiles welcomed into God’s people but imagined themselves as the “new Israel joined to the body of Jesus through faith.” (97) Within this position of divine election and calling to “evangelize” the New World, Christians interpret colonialism within a strange new soteriological orientation, where salvation was disassociated from communion (93) and where the church gained authority to evaluate and discern the conversion of peoples across the world (31-38).

The argument

The book is divided into an introduction (1-15 pages) and three parts, “Displacement” (50 pages), “Translation” (50 pages), and “Intimacy” (43 pages). Each part is divided into two chapters. To demonstrate his thesis Jennings narrates the stories of four key characters: Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry; the Jesuit theologian Jose de Acosta; the famed Anglican Bishop John William Colenso; and the former slave writer Olaudah Equiano. Through these stories Jennings seeks to analyze their “theological performance”, in other words how the articulation of theology and colonialism gave way to their social performances (10). What the author achieves is an innovative narration of the genealogy of race around four stories and three key themes.

Part 1: Displacement

Part one deals with displacement, mainly “The auctioning of bodies without regard to any form of human connection.” (22). The outcome is the violent removal of land as the main signifier for people’s identity, and the creation of the racial scale for the formation of new identity signifiers. In this racial scale “whiteness emerges, not simply as a marker of the European but as the rarely spoken but always understood organizing conceptual frame (…) Black bodies are the ever-visible counterweight of a usually invisible white identity.” (26)

Chapter 1 focuses on Zurara, the royal chronicler of Prince Henry of Portugal, who is in charge of narrating and interpreting the Portuguese trafficking of sub-Saharan African slaves. Zurara must reconcile the viciousness of slavery with his Christian faith and while doing so, he weeps. However, he repents for his tears as he legitimizes slavery as the means ordained by God for African conversion. In doing so Zurara initiates a theological tradition where the church will use divine providence and soteriology to theologically condone western power over the New World.

Chapter 2 tells the story of a Jesuit scholar who serves as a missionary in colonial Peru, Jose de Acosta. As an observer of the New World, Acosta laughs, he laughs at the disjunctive “between the conceptualities he had learned so well in the Old World and the physical realities of the New World surrounding his flesh” (85). Like Zurara, Acosta uses divine providence as a wildcard, for example “He discerns the guiding hand of God in the way the Spanish arrived and remained in the New World, while discerning no such divine involvement in the lives of native peoples.” (90) Within this logic, Acosta creates a “pedagogical imperialism” where natives are to be taught submission to western tutelage as their own culture and traditions are dismissed as ontologically inferior and demonic (95).

Part 2: Translation:

In chapter 3 “Colenso’s Heart” Jennings focuses on the life and work of John William Colenso, the first Anglican bishop of Natal, South Africa. Unlike Acosta, Colenso believed that God was already present in the religious traditions of the Zulus. However, Jennings analyzes how Colenso’s universalism still carried out “the colonial reconfiguration of the earth” (146). For Colenso the particularities of each culture where deem as futile and Christianity became a means for “civilizing” Africans and turning them into good Christians. However, this alienated them from their own culture and traditions and merged well with the capitalist expansion of colonial enterprises. For Jennings translation of the Bible does not only mean the linguistic process but communion, a joining of the pain and plight of one another (165). Hence Colenso’s theological performance presented a Christianity that “offers one a gospel that is for everyone of necessity but joins no one of necessity. Thus, the incarnation in this order of things comes to signify divine entrance into the world. The specific contours of that entrance lose their social and political character.” (emphasis added, 166).

Chapter 4, “Equiano Words,” is based on Olaudah Equiano, one of the first African slaves to write an autobiography. In Equiano, Jennings narrates the tragedy of Christianity’s diseased imagination. Even after becoming a Christian, Equiano finds himself without a community and is cut off from any kind of Christian fellowship, since the slave system overruled the life of the church. “Belonging was racialized” and what Equiano conveyed in his theological musings was a Christianity without a community, were he only belonged to God and, the Scriptures belonged to him (199). Hence for Jennings, Equiano is “pressed to work inside a Christian vision that lacks the ability to imagine multitude, different peoples joined together in love, and thus lacks the desire to reconstitute its life through the many” (p. 201).

Part 3: Intimacy:

In the last two chapters, Jennings explores the relationship of literacy in the creation of segregated Christian mentalities and then proposes a way forward. In chapter 5, White Space and Literacy, Jennings analyzes a series of Christian hymns where ancient Israel is replaced with specific western nations (209-220). This strategy was used to propagate a nationalistic agenda where colonial powers were interpreted as fulfilling a divine telos. And within this narrative, black people were held captive to fit the role of subordinates. By a manipulation of biblical texts, literacy becomes an important instrument to manage the dreams and aspirations of black people (234-241).

In chapter 6, “Those Near Belonging” Jennings develops his argument against Supersessionism. Earlier in the book Jennings states that the fact that Israel has been superseded represents “the deepest theological problem and the greatest theological possibility” (26). For Jennings, the only way forward is for the church to recognize the Jewishness of Jesus (259-265) and to return to biblical history where the connection between land and people is restored through Israel. The author suggest that Israel provides Christian theology an “elected stability” (39) that gives Christianity “spatial and geographic dimension” (292) necessary to restore human identity and belonging. Jennings concludes with an invitation to visualize Christian theology differently “To imagine along the direction I suggest in this book would be nothing else than a theological act, indeed, as I suggest, a Christian act of imagining.” (294) 

Positive comments:

One powerful aspect of Jenning’s genealogy of race is his use of narrative. By carefully selecting historical characters that truly experienced the brutal merge of faith and colonialism, Jennings is able to bring some bitter truths home. What is more, some of those truths are still pertinent to the life of the church today. As a Christian living in the majority world, I was able to empathize with some of the colonial attitudes that Jennings exposes so well. For example, Acosta’s “pedagogical imperialism” is still being practiced (95). Many evangelical churches often diminish all aspects of indigenous religious life as demonic, but easily adopt all kinds of western practices that are really just aspects of western culture. For example, many churches do not allow traditional dancing (an essential aspect of our culture) because missionaries interpreted them as worship of idols and hence demonic.

On the other hand, Western theology is still viewed as the only true “theology”. I remember a huge conflict in my church where missionaries refused to attend Sunday services where the preacher was a woman. In other words, they did not think the local church leaders were accurate in their interpretation and felt the need to “correct” and “teach” the church elders. There was never a sense of respect for the capacity of the local leaders to encounter and interpret the biblical text differently. Sadly, there is still an underlying idea that western Christians have a lot to teach the global south but not so much openness to allow the global south to speak for itself and perhaps even teach western missionaries other equally valuable aspects of Christian living.

Another feature that is sadly still pertinent today is the “suspicion” of western Christians towards Christians from the global south. This concept is well developed in Jennings description of Valignano’s classification of people appropriate for ecclesial service. In this classification, westerners were viewed as the most reliable race for Christian leadership (35). Following Jennings’ strategy, allow me to tell a story to illustrate my point. While planning our move to the UK, my husband and I decided to explore the possibility to join our studies with ministry. We then contacted a western mission organization that aims to bring missionaries from Europe to Latin America and from Latin America to Europe. However, to our surprise, during our first interview we were not faced with questions about our calling and gifts. But questions about our “true” intentions to do ministry in Europe with suspicion that we were joining the organization to live and work in the UK. At some point we were even asked if we wanted to use the organization for our own convenience. We felt we were being judged by our nationalities and not by our Christian witness. Jennings is right to point out that we have not reached the intimacy of a united global church where all its members are treated with dignity and regarded as equal.

Finally, in its analysis of colonialism, “The Christian Imagination”, had elements that reminded me of Edward Said’s work “Orientalism”. For example, both authors mention the importance of textuality for giving legitimacy to a colonial project. It is through textuality that colonial powers portray their dominion as just and describe the subject regions as backward, irrational and childlike: as perpetual students in need of western tutelage. Alongside textuality comes the issue or representation. Both authors agree in demonstrating how subject cultures remain “silent” and are always “represented” by colonial powers. Often this representation is biased and portrays the inadequacy of inferior races. Furthermore, both authors mention the “racial scale” with “whiteness as its center” as an important element of imperial rhetoric. I believe these similarities are an indication that I will find similar characteristics when I analyze Christian Zionists texts. It is good to already have some sort of lexicon to be able to categorize and name the phenomenon.

Negative comments

Although I strongly agree with Jennings’ diagnosis of the problem, I just as much disagree with his proposed cure. I have organized my critique in the following three headings.

Who is “living Israel”?

While I agree with Jennings that it is necessary for the church to remember its “gentile existence” (252) to avoid claiming for ourselves what was only true for Biblical Israel (257).[1] I am not convinced with his argument that restoring the church’s relationship with “living Israel” is the most urgent solution. Firstly, because he does not give an appropriate account of who is “living Israel”. And by leaving that definition fluid, his work could easily serve as the foundation of a new kind of supercessionism; a supersessionism where Biblical Israel is replaced with the modern state of Israel. Ironically, the modern state of Israel functions as a colonial power against another group of people, the Palestinians. And within that colonial relationship the issue of land is at the center. Nevertheless, Jennings shies away from exploring this power dynamic. To me, this omission, (conscious or not) weakens his argument and denotes a feeble understanding of the innerworkings of colonialism and theology in today’s world. This is ironic since he is actually trying to convey a new kind of Christian imagination precisely for today’s theological landscape.

Furthermore, I fear that Jenning’s emphasis on the “Jewishness of Jesus” and God being firstly the “God of Israel” places, once again, race at the center. This comes in stark contrast with his call for the Christian church to find its renewed identity in a person (Jesus) and not a manmade division.

Where does the New Testament fit?

It seems to me that in the New Testament, when the primitive church (formed by Jewish believers) was confronted with issues of ethnicity and national identity they were adamant to re-interpret all these concepts in the light of Jesus. When Jennings mentions the indispensable need for the church to acknowledge Judaism and living Israel, he does not develop this relationship in light of Scripture. It would be interesting to analyze his thesis in the light of how the primitive church understood “Israel” and God’s eschatological promises in Revelations.  

I also find that his over-all diagnosis of the Christian imagination avoids the fact that the abolition of slavery came from Christianity as well. How can one explain that within Christian western imperialism and supersessionism, white European Christians found the strength to stand against slavery and fight for human equality among the races? It seems to me that in his diagnosis, Jennings does not take into consideration the fallenness of the human heart and its inclination towards power, including religious power. Being watchful of this tendency and including it in our Christian imagination seems to me a better antidote than focusing on the distorted relationship between Jews and Gentile Christians.

Jewish people and the black church

I also think Jennings is romanticizing the relationship between the black church and Jewish people, especially at the backdrop of the segregated and often mistreated black Jews living in Israel. Yes, it’s true that both people groups have suffered from a Christian diseased theology (through the holocaust and the slave trade) but this unique connection seems a bit arbitrary, even deriving from a personal preference. Especially when considering that many black writers (Alice Walker, Nelson Mandela to name a few) and political movements (Black Lives Matter) have identified with the plight of the Palestinian people. I believe that all oppressed groups, when reading the biblical story of Israel, can empathize and find shared experiences. Would it not be more accurate to affirm that the continuation of biblical Israel are all oppressed people who find hope in the Messiah: Jesus Christ?

Review by Sara Améstegui Deik. Sara is undertaking doctoral research through the CSBV. Her research focuses on how dispensational eschatology influences Palestinian reception of the gospel.

[1] I am thinking of God’s instructions in the Joshua wars, for example.

The Christian imagination: Theology and the origins of Race
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